Lawmakers reject first payment of federal charter school grant, questioning long term impact

On Friday, December 13, 2019, New Hampshire’s fiscal oversight committee voted 7-3 to reject the first payment of a new $46M federal charter school grant. The funds, sought by the New Hampshire Department of Education, would have been used to double the number of charter schools in the state.

“New Hampshire charter schools are still working to recruit students and build their financial stability and our state as a whole is struggling to adequately fund public education — this is not the time to divert funds from those existing educational facilities,” wrote Representative Mary Jane Wallner, the chairwoman of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. 

Charter schools receive the same $3,708 per student that neighborhood public schools receive, as well as $3,479 per student in charter school-specific grants. 

A 2007 independent review of the state’s charter schools showed that many charters struggle financially because of low state aid:

“State tuition payments for charter schools are widely regarded by charter school administrators as inadequate to serve as the sole source of funding for their schools. The basis on which the charter program was established, that is that philanthropic funding would fill the gap between state charter tuition grants and the amount needed to fund a school, has not proven to be the case.”

The grant funds would have been awarded to new charter schools, or existing charter schools that were interested in expanding for startup costs like curriculum development, educational materials, and purchasing supplies. Schools could not have used it to support their regular operating costs, teacher salaries, or other ongoing costs. Existing charter schools would only be eligible for funds for expansion or replication, and could not be used for current operations. 

The grant would have also provided funding to rebuild the process that the state uses to approve charter schools, and provide two new charter school administrators within the NH Department of Education. 

Existing charter schools have unique missions, from serving at-risk students, to having a particular academic focus area. There are currently 30 charter schools operating in the 2019-2020 school year, serving roughly 3,800 New Hampshire students. Last year, there were an estimated 1,083 open seats in 20 of the schools, according to an analysis by Reaching Higher NH. 

NH Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut reacted to the vote:

“Students choose public charter schools because they are going ‘to’ something, or are moving ‘from’ something. When they go to something, it is because the want to pursue an interest, such a STEM, or the arts, or project-based learning. When they come from something, they are leaving an environment where they have not seen success, or they have been bullied,” Commissioner Edelblut wrote in a statement

“Families of means can make these choices any time they want. This grant was meant to give economically-disadvantaged students and at-risk students those same choices,” he continued. 

Although the state cannot accept the federal funds at this time, the Commissioner has stated that he will work with the US Department of Education to determine the future of the grant.